It’s difficult to measure the value of a good dog. Beyond mere anecdotal evidence, research suggests that dogs (and other pets) can help people come back from traumatic experiences, lessen symptoms of anxiety and depression and, yes, even be powerful allies in recovery from addiction to drugs and alcohol.
Hundreds of years of evolution and domestication have made dogs, more than any other household pet, acutely aware of human emotion and expression.
Not only do dogs understand many words, our four legged friends are experts in body language, tone of voice and hand gestures. More than anything though, dogs love us unconditionally. For many people, this is their best and most healing quality.
How Pets Help the Human Condition
Research has shown that within 15 minutes of holding and petting a dog, people experience some of the following:
- A 10 percent drop in blood pressure
- A decrease in Cortisol, a chemical in the brain associated with stress
- An increase in serotonin, a chemical in the brain responsible for relaxation
- An additional increase in dopamine, a neurotransmitter responsible for a warm feelings and a good mood
- A reduction in anxiety
The nonprofit organization Paws and Stripes takes this evidence to heart. The organization provides service dogs to wounded veterans suffering from PTSD and traumatic brain injury. Paws and Stripes rescues dogs from local shelters and trainers work with both the dog and their new owner to become a team.
There is also evidence that people with a canine companion are less likely to suffer depression and heart disease. Perhaps one reason or this is because dogs need walks and regular exercise is the right medicine for so many mental and physical ailments that people deal with.
Emotionally, pets satisfy the most basic of human needs, which is touch and companionship.
As self-sufficient as they are, dogs require their to owners step outside of themselves and tend to the needs of their pet. On a very basic level, this allows people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, addiction recovery and depression, to focus on something outside of the painful symptoms of their disease.
The ability to focus on the present and not dwell in the past is how many people ultimately learn to stay drug and alcohol free.
Pets Instill a “Sense of Purpose”
As the companionship between an owner and their dog deepens, many people find real meaning in this relationship. The Japanese word ikiagi, which translates to “a reason for being,” is one way that dogs can be effective therapy for patients that experience hopelessness and despair due to trauma, anxiety or addiction.
While they certainly don’t mean to, caring for a dog adds structure and routine to a person’s life. After all, they have to be fed, walked and can’t be left alone for long periods.
The sense of duty and responsibility our dogs engender, as annoying as it can be from time to time, is actually very healthy. A grounded, less impulsive lifestyle is important for a successful recovery from mental health issues.
Getting a dog is certainly not a decision best made impulsively. At first, it may be best to volunteer at an animal shelter or offer to walk a friend’s dog to see if it might be a good fit. Fortunately, there are many older dogs, which are easier to take care of than puppies, available for adoption at local shelters.
As the American wildlife preservationist, photographer and writer, Roger Caras, reminded us, “Dogs are not our whole life, but they make our lives whole.”